Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A sunburnt country

My first thought today when I woke up in Sydney was “I slept in, I’m late”.

My second was “oh, and the apocalypse is here”.

There was an enormous dust storm last night and Sydney was blanketed in a thick red cloud of dust. It’s faded to a sullen yellow glow now, but at seven this morning the rising suns rays hitting the dust obliquely turned the city amber and red, like all the city was the outback glowing in the dawn. There are some great shots of it here.

The million dollar views of Darling Harbour look out now on an outback dust-storm. Exasperated staff sweep tracks of red dirt from the floor and furnishings of shops and restaurants. Billboards look sepia through the fog, like relics of another time and place. The cars in the city are coated in grime, the corner offices of the financial district smeared with a film of dust.

You forget how big, how dry this country is. You forget most of the cities cling to the sea, cowering away from the vast hot red and yellow plains of the centre. We live in our lovely lush Harbour City, and we catch the ferries across the bay and picnic in the big green parks and pour clean water in abundance into our glasses and our gardens and our pools and forget just how dry Australia is.

I grew up in Ireland, the Emerald Isle. A place so green that my Australian boyfriend commented when he saw it it looked hallucinogenic. An island of mild weather, of drizzle and fog and gentle spring rains making the landscape lush. Ireland is, for all the damp, very beautiful. I have always thought so.

It’s odd then that this morning’s choking dust reminds me of a very famous Australian poem – My Country by Dorothea Mackellar. “I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping plains, Of ragged mountain ranges, Of droughts and flooding rains.”

I’ve worked inland. At the tail end of a seven year drought, I worked a few hundred miles from the coast in New South Wales; where the dry earth cracks like crazy paving and there is nothing but dead grass in the fields. I worked with a farmer who had sold all his stock but the last two of his cattle, crushed by the relentless drought and the cost of feeding them. We were told to take a minute’s shower; any more and we could drain the rain water tank and it was a long drive to refill if we need to get the expensive additional water.

I’ve spoken to families clinging to hang on to their homes, when the rain has failed for the seventh year running, and vets who moved away from their lifelong jobs when the last of the lifestock in the area had gone. Living in the Australian outback is not easy.

But, in its severe way, it is beautiful. Just after dawn the early morning changes from the chill of the cloudless night to the soaring heat of the day, the wind carrying the scent of eucalyptus in the air and dust kicked up by every step. The sunsets are amazing; the red dust reflecting a thousand vibrant shades of blue and purple and pink, the earth radiating heat as the gorged red sun sinks below the horizon.

And that, that is a few hundred miles in. It’s not even close to the baking heart of this country, where the red sand stretches for thousands of miles, where countless explorers vanished for all eternity and an empty gas tank and a water tank could be a death sentence.

Today everyone in Sydney, no matter how much they have pay to insulate and distance themselves from the Australian outback, has had it come to them. At the beginning of the summer, Sydney has thrown us a glowing outback dawn.

Other people may grimace and grizzle about how much it will cost to clean the windows, the floor, the carpets. But to me today’s red and dusty dawn is a reminder of the stark beauty of the Australian landscape, and that is has been too long since I’ve seen it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Published in MX today - Losing weight and your sanity, a step-by-step approach

Summer is coming, and I’m not ready. I thought I was in shape but according to a fitness assessment at the gym, that shape is a Stop-sign – stationary, large and bright red.

I knew I should have got fitter before I went to the gym to get checked out. It’s like cleaning before the cleaners come; it doesn’t make sense but it’s a bit less embarrassing.

So today I plan to start stage fourteen of the get fit for Summer plan.

Stage one is persuading yourself it’s all hormonal and seasonal fat.

Christmas dinner, Easter eggs, cold weather, water-retention, the running of the tides - all these are better explanations for why your fattest Fat Pants are gaping at the seams.

Not that you ate too much and stayed on the sofa for the last three months.

Or that you have been stuffing your face with chocolate and counting walks to the Thai place across the road as exercise, oh no. It’s not your fault; it’s winter weight!

The first bit of Stage two is asking your partner or friend if you have put on a little weight.

The second bit is accusing them of being shallow and heartless when they say that you have put on a little, but doesn’t everyone over winter and maybe you should get fit together?

Stage three involves locking yourself in the bathroom while crying and eating more chocolate. And then storming out to throw cleaning implements at your partner, shouting if they like skinny things so much they can go out with the mop.

Here’s also where you hurl allegations that they would rather be seeing skinnier people. Such as their ex, their co-workers, your co-workers, their friends, your ex, their family, their mother, random strangers on the street, the stoned guy who staffs the graveyard shift at the 7-11 and anyone who is currently less porky than you.

Stage four involves apologising. A lot. Also picking up the things you threw.

Stage five involves drowning the pain in alcohol. A lot.

Stage six is hungover.

Stage seven involves actually doing something about things and attempting to go to the gym occasionally, while still eating all that chocolate.

Stage eight is being too busy to do the gym but deciding that switching to low fat milk cancels out the chocolate.

Stage nine is giving up on the gym as it’s not working.

Stage ten is realising that you might need to do more than one gym session a week.

Stages eleven through to thirteen repeat stages two to four. This time you pretend the throwing stuff at your partner and cleaning it up counts as a workout.

And stage fourteen involves biting the bullet and actually genuinely trying to get into a healthier routine. Wish me luck. Or send chocolate.

Sadhbh Warren is an MX reader who is off to the gym any day now.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Spelling out hypocrisy

Stephen Fielding, Victorian Senator and the Federal parliamentary leader of the Family First Party in Australia, speaks out on the Punch about the mocking he over his disability.

He revealed that disability – dyslexia - this week. He has frequently mispronounced words, including stating "fiscal policy" as "physical policy". He was questioned about the mispronunciation. "I'll make it quite clear: fiscal, F-I-S-K-A-L," he spelt.

Journalists were quick to jump on the gaffe. The incident was a God send on a slow news day, and it appeared in every paper and every site. In the Senate, a Greens MP called out ''spell it'' as he tried to speak.

Unwilling to take the roasting lying down, he wrote back, revealing what many people suspected; that he is dyslexic.

He makes some excellent points. He argues that we shouldn’t mock people for their disabilities, that one disability does not negate their ability in other areas. There is nothing wrong with being dyslexic and a difficulty with spelling does not mean a difficulty thinking.

“Let’s face it, sometimes it’s easy to have a crack at people who might not be able to spell or articulate themselves as well as others. But I ask you, would you have a crack at someone just because they’re in a wheelchair? I don’t think so.”

But, as he says himself, people did not know he had a disability because he was unwilling to tell them.

I have a disability – my hearing is badly impaired. I can not hear high-pitched noises full stop. Doesn’t sound bad. Until you realize that this means I can’t hear people speak when there is background noise, hear dialogue in movies, anything over the phone.

I frequently make horrible mistakes; mishearing people, ignoring people, answering questions they didn’t ask. It is embarrassing. I’ve lost jobs, and worse, potential dates over it.

And the quickest way out of it? Tell people I have a problem. It’s a common problem. Most people are decent and once they understand will take it onboard.

But he decided not to tell people. ”We shouldn’t look down on people just because they can’t pronounce their words properly or they muck up their spelling.” Perhaps not – I am sceptical but that’s an argument for another day - but should we expect an elected public figure to be able to apparently understand, spell and pronounce long words related to the economy?

Should we expect people elected to communicate and change policy to be able to express themselves clearly? Is that unreasonable?

Of course it’s not.

He was roasted because he was giving answers that made him seem unfit for the job. Now it’s known he has a disability, he will be given some leeway. But you can’t attack people not knowing things you didn’t tell them.

It reminds me of something I read in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. "Just because someone's a member of an ethnic minority doesn't mean they're not a nasty small-minded little jerk.”

Stephen Fielding could have admitted his disability. He could have, in fact, been a poster boy for what you can achieve with dyslexia. A Senator, with an MBA and an engineering degree. But he chose not to be.

He was too ashamed to admit that he had dyslexia, and now tries to shame others. He maintains a disability is no big deal, but he doesn’t want to reveal his. People should not be ashamed to have a learning difficulty; but he is.

And that spells hypocrisy, whatever way you want to spell it out.